Elbow (radial head or neck) fracture

Your injury may be referred to as a fracture, break or crack. These terms all mean the same thing.

When you have a fracture, it's not just the bone that's affected. You'll also have injured some of the soft tissues around it. Soft tissues include the:

  • muscles
  • ligaments
  • tendons
  • nerves
shutterstock_1951767676
Elbow (radial head) or neck fracture.

Recovery times

A fracture heals between 3 to 6 weeks after the injury.

It's normal to have aches and discomfort beyond 3 to 6 weeks. This often happens when you try activities you haven’t done for a while.

It's also normal for the area to be more sensitive for a while after the injury.

What can affect your recovery?

There are some things that might affect your recovery.

Smoking

Smoking affects all your tissues and slows facture healing times. In some people, it can stop healing altogether.

Stopping smoking as your fracture heals will help to ensure the best recovery.

Get help to stop smoking.

General health

Some medical conditions, like diabetes, may slow down the healing.

Eating a healthy diet and keeping yourself active will help your recovery.

Medication

Some medications can slow down fracture healing. If you have concerns about your medication, talk to a healthcare professional.

Anti-inflammatory medication, like Ibuprofen or Naproxen, has been shown to delay healing.

What to expect after an elbow fracture

This type of elbow fracture is stable and you can move your joint without causing damage.

At first, your elbow will feel stiff and painful. However, it's important to continue to move it, even if it hurts.

You may be given a collar and cuff or sling for pain relief only. It's important that you reduce the use of this as your pain improves to prevent your elbow from becoming stiff. The aim is to stop wearing this support as soon as possible, ideally within a week.

Pain after a fracture

It's normal to have some discomfort in the areas around your fracture, including:

  • other soft tissues
  • nearby joints
  • areas that have been immobilised

Pain can change from day to day and it doesn’t always depend on what you're doing. It's common to have pain at rest.

It's normal to have some pain even when your fracture has healed. Some people also experience discomfort in the fracture site during colder weather.

Your local pharmacy can give you advice on managing pain after a fracture.

Find your local pharmacy

Use Scotland's Service Directory to find your local pharmacy.

Pharmacies

Swelling

Swelling is the start of healing. It's normal to have swelling near the fracture. It can then spread down your arm.

The swelling changes with:

  • your position
  • activity
  • the time of day

Even when your fracture has healed it's normal to have some swelling. This can last for several months.

How to reduce swelling

Having a lot of swelling can become uncomfortable or limit your movement. However, there are some things you can do to reduce the swelling. You can try to:

  • raise your arm above your heart when resting – you can do this by supporting your elbow with pillows
  • keep the other joints in your hand or arm moving normally
  • avoid too much rest or too much activity
  • massage the swelling

Bruising

It's normal to have bruising after a fracture.

Bruising can be widespread and may appear a long way from your fracture. It can be very purple to start with and may change colour as you recover.

Getting back to normal activities

There are some things you should consider when trying to get back to your normal activities.

Driving

You should contact your insurance provider before driving. Your injury may affect your insurance.

Once you're out of your sling, the general advice is that you must be able to perform an emergency stop or manoeuvre safely.

You should always be in full control of your vehicle.

Work

Your return to work will depend on the type of work you do and your employer. It may be possible to discuss a phased return to work or changed duties.

You don’t need to see a healthcare professional to return to work.

Daily Activities

It can take 6 weeks for a radial head or neck fracture to heal completely. During this time, don't stress the joint with heavy lifting or weight-bearing.

Don't return to contact sports until:

  • at least 6 weeks after your injury
  • you're pain-free when moving

However, keep doing any activities you're able to and where your pain allows. Over time, gradually increase what you do.

Reduced flexibility and strength may make things more difficult to start with. This will get better as you slowly build up to all your usual activities.

Mood

Frustration or low mood after an injury is normal. As you get back to normal life this should get better.

Falls

Loss of confidence is common after a fracture.

Get advice about preventing falls.

Bone scanning

You may be sent a letter inviting you for a scan of your bone density after a fracture.

It's routine to be assessed for any further risk of fracture, especially if you:

  • are over the age of 50
  • have increased risk factors for fracture

Rehabilitation plan

There are movements you can do to help each stage of your recovery

0 to 3 weeks after your injury

Just after your injury, you should:

2 to 6 weeks after your injury

Between 3 to 6 weeks after your injury, you should:

  • continue your elbow exercises, making sure you're aiming for full movement
  • pay particular attention to straightening your elbow and turning your palm upwards - you can add gentle pressure from your other hand to stretch out these movements

6 to 12 weeks after your injury

The injury should be healed between 6 to 12 weeks but heavy tasks may cause discomfort.

You should aim to:

  • return to full function
  • resume normal day to day activity
  • return to higher impact activity
  • try exercises to regain elbow movement

How to increase movement after injury

It's important to start exercises as soon as possible after an injury. This will help your recovery and help you to regain normal function.

Consider other parts of your arm when moving, like your fingers, wrist and shoulder. There is nothing wrong with them so don't let them stiffen as well. Keep all parts moving.

Exercises should be practiced for 3 to 5 minutes every hour. It's better to do movements little and often, than to do them once a day for a longer period.

Help and support

If your elbow function hasn’t improved within 6 weeks of following this advice, it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

Exercises for your elbow

The elbow does 4 movements. It turns your hand palm up and palm down. It can also straighten and bend so that your hand touches your shoulder.

You should try exercises that practise these movements.

Exercise 1

Practice taking your hand towards your shoulder and then straighten them out as much as you can.

6
Your elbow allows your hand to touch your shoulder.

Exercise 2

Turn your palm upwards and then downwards.

7
Elbow exercises should focus on turning your palm upwards.

Additional elbow exercises

You can practice other exercises for your injured elbow like:

You can do these exercises 4 to 5 times a day.

Stop these exercises if they make your symptoms worse, or cause new pain.

Last updated:
01 August 2022